It’s likely you’ve already seen her, sat on a mid-century modern armchair, her snout protruding, her flippers neatly tucked under her bulbous body. To some people she is known as “chonky”, to others “angry”, still more call her “Chubby Blob Seal Pillow Stuffed Cotton Plush Animal Toy”. Since the tail end of last year, she has been aggressively advertised across Instagram and Facebook – a soft, hyper-realistic, over-sized seal pillow sold with slogans like “For whoever dreams of cuddling a seal,” and “Thicker than your average mammal!! Available now.”
Where did this seal pillow come from and why has nearly everyone you know seen an advertisement for it on social media? How can it be that some reviewers find the pillows “smooth, pleasant” and yet others claim they smell strongly of gasoline? Why are the pillows sometimes angry and sometimes very calm? Why, why, why, why – why?
The truth can be traced to an aquarium in Osaka, Japan; the confusion lies on tens of identikit websites. Most of the social media advertisements for chonky/angry/chubby seals come from the same handful of sources – ChonkyPlushies.com, PureNesty.com and PlushUltra.co (which changed its name to TrendBuzzed.com in the course of writing this article). All of these sites are highly similar in structure and tone, and each use the exact same picture of the seal pillow on an armchair to sell their goods. None of them have contact numbers, and none responded to a request for comment sent via email.
It is clear the person or people behind these websites spent a ton on social media advertising, with ads popping up on Stories and in main feeds with alarming frequency over Christmas 2019. Sometimes, the source of the ads was even more obscure – such as when an Instagram account with no posts, @techenthusiast22, started creating Sponsored posts about the “angery” seal (it is likely a dummy account used by advertisers). Outside of social media, there are even more websites which seem to rely on SEO to sell our chonky friend. She’s available on Amazon, Wish, and eBay, but it is Ikiha.com that has inspired the internet’s ire.
On 30 October 2019, an online support community was born. “I just got a email saying my seal got held at customs,” was the first message in the chat room “Ikiha Seal Watch” hosted on the anonymous chat app Discord. Over the coming months, people gathered to discuss their issues with Ikiha’s Chubby Seal Pillow – from long delivery times to PayPal disputes to the eventual arrival of their marine mammals. When the toys arrived, some buyers complained of a strong gasoline smell; others noticed that the seal had an extremely angry facial expression that wasn’t present in the store’s online pics.
Ikiha did not respond to multiple requests to comment over call, voicemail, and email. The company website says the store is located in Grayslake, Illinois, but on Google Maps, the address given appears to be residential. Online, people who have ordered the Ikiha seal claim the tracking numbers they received were for Chinese courier services.
Those who have received their Ikiha pillows say the seals do not come with a tag indicating where they were made. Alessandra is a 20-year-old student from New York City who paid $32 (£24) for an Ikiha pillow and waited a month for it to arrive. “I was honestly surprised anything arrived at all,” she says. Her angry seal doesn’t resemble the pictures on the Ikiha site, but looks more like “they just printed a picture of the real thing on some fabric and sewed it all together”. Alessandra had to “air out” her seal for a few days because of a gasoline smell, which she says has now thankfully gone away.
The internet’s original seal pillow was not labelled chonky, or angry, or “angery” – she was known by her name, Yuki. Her now famous armchair photograph was taken by the brand who co-created her – YOU+MORE!, sold by Felissimo, a Japanese retailer headquartered in Hyogo. The pillow was first released in August 2019 in collaboration with Aquarium Kaiyukan in Osaka, where the real Yuki lives.
Yuki is a ringed seal who has risen to prominence in Japan for her near-perfect rotundity. Yuki-chan is flawless. She eats 3kg of fish a day and is one metre long. She weighs 50kg. She looks this round because she pulls her head in to protect her neck from the cold. I hear one time, she met John Stamos on a plane – and he told her she was pretty.
Yuki first went viral in 2018, so when Felissimo released the pillow a year later, viral content sites spread the news far and wide. Among others, 9gag and Diply linked out to the official site to celebrate the release. Yet for some, the price was immediately off-putting – Felissimo sell Yuki for ¥6,820 (roughly $62 or £47).
It’s no secret that the internet has caused a boom in the buying and selling of counterfeit goods, and it’s understandable that as viral fodder, Yuki pillows were bootlegged almost immediately. Felissimo’s prices were quickly undercut dramatically – the seal pillow on ChonkyPlushies.com goes for just £15, while Ikiha’s are on offer for $27.95 (around £22). The arms (flipper?) race continues, with some Amazon sellers now flogging their seals for as little as £8.49.
Yet there are risks when purchasing a knock-off Yuki: not only might it smell a bit, it also might come much, much smaller than advertised. It is still unclear whether manufacturers created an angry version of Yuki deliberately or accidentally, because although “angry” often features in the SEO titles given to these seal pillows, the pictures used on these websites are Felissimo’s originals.
Iris Lee, a global marketer from Felissimo, said the company were “sad” to see the English social media adverts for Yuki pillows and confirmed they were not from the brand. “We have found many fake and copy products of seal cushions on the internet recently,” she said over email. She explained the pillow was developed with Yuki’s aquarium to keep the body pattern, flippers, and tail consistent with the real deal. “This seal cushion can only be bought from Felissimo and Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan,” she said.
A passionate Tumblr user has now curated a list of ways you can tell if your Yuki is a knock-off. The fakes, they say, have “much darker blacker” spots, “the nose is huge”, and the pillow is “more flat”. The blogger claims that bootleggers targeted “seal interest groups, forums, and especially Facebook pages!” to sell their pillows.
“The bootleggers aren’t just selling them on sites, waiting for people to happen to stumble upon them, they’re actively joining groups, pretending to be fellow seal fan/members, and planting store links in posts to trick people into buying them,” the blogger claims.
We live in an online world that loves absolute units, chonk, and adorable animals, so Yuki’s fate was almost inevitable. Someone, somewhere has likely made an absolute fortune selling ripoffs, and spent a smaller fortune pushing ads that were designed to appeal to the internet at large.
And yet, thankfully many buyers aren’t unhappy with their knock-off seal pillows – a chubby seal is still a chubby seal, even if it isn’t the original and the best. Dan is a 29-year-old from London who purchased three seal pillows in 2019 as Christmas presents. He kept seeing English Instagram ads for the pillows but chose a knock-off of the knock-off on eBay as it was the cheapest option. “I just bought them because I’m an idiot… but I wasn’t disappointed,” he says, “They’re almost meme-like, there’s something comic about them.”
Asked if he would recommend a seal pillow to others, he said: “Everyone needs one. They’re life-changing.”